Deserted by her husband, who teaches in a bucolic, private school for the visually impaired, Candida is a 50-ish, unemployed woman, estranged from her three daughters, at least two of whom blame her for the failure of her marriage. To the astonishment of everyone in her sphere, she embarks on a completely new, though modest life in a tiny, walkup flat in one of London's immigrant communities. Her consciously passive efforts to find new friends and discard old ones leads her to keep a diary, to take a night course on Virgil, and improbably--when the night school closes--to join the Health club that replaces it.

Eventually, she assembles six new friends--the seven sisters--for an Aeneas-like journey from Carthage to Rome, with plans to consult the Cumean Sybil en route. Illness draws her closer to her middle daughter, Ellen, whose own perspectives on her parents' marriage contrast with those of her mother. Illness also forces an abrupt end to the travels. Candida wrestles with the issues of survival, suicide, and the meaning of life for an aging woman in an aging body whose entire purpose had once been helpmeet and mother. Can any other purpose be found?


A geriatric coming-of-age novel, remarkably well written with insight, humor, and originality. Allusions to classical mythology abound. Virgil of the Aeneid is also the Virgil of Dante, intrepid tour guide of the Underworld, in this case the "hell" of unanticipated divorce. The "seven sisters" title is a play on the Pleiades and on a station stop in the London area. Their characters are clearly drawn; each woman faces the challenges of age, loneliness, companionship, nostalgia, and sexual desire (or lack thereof) in her own way. Candida's choice of a grimy neighborhood suits her mood--as well as her limited means--and is perhaps a metaphor for the ugly psychological realities, with which she must cope. Her wounding attempts to rescue a dead Christmas tree are both comic and poignant.

The book is divided into four parts that experiment with voice--a tentative diary in the first-person; a journey to Italy in the third person; a "postmortem" by the daughter, Ellen; and a return to the first person who now seems more optimistic. The parts represent stages in an unwelcome but therapeutic voyage of self-discovery, in which the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, reminding us that each is an integral part of the other.


The author, herself a divorced and remarried mother of 3, is a former editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature and a younger sister of A. S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt.


Viking (UK) and Harcourt (USA)

Place Published

London & New York



Page Count